Separation anxiety is common, affecting between 13-28% of dogs. Although the condition is not directly life-threatening, the extreme behaviors displayed by dogs with separation anxiety interfere with their quality of life. The consequences of the panic a dog with separation anxiety experiences are common reasons for rehoming, surrender, or - in extreme cases - euthanasia. Prompt assessment by a veterinarian allows for management strategies to be put in place, in addition to ruling out any health conditions that are contributing to the dog’s anxiety.
Dogs with separation anxiety often destroy objects or injure themselves as they attempt to escape in an effort to reach their owner.
Common injuries include:
Some dogs obsessively lick or bite at themselves to try and relieve stress.
When panicking, dogs are not in a mental space where learning or training is possible. Once a dog is experiencing the panic and mortal fear associated with separation anxiety, the opportunity for behavioral modification and training has passed. In contrast to creating a disproportionately emotional departure ritual to begin with, a pet parent is not going to make the situation worse by providing comfort to a dog who is actively panicking.
Many dog breeds were developed to complete high-energy and mentally stimulating tasks involving a strong human connection. As pets, these types of dogs often have a limited ability to express their hard-wired behaviors. The stress from excessive energy or boredom combines with the stress from wanting to be close to their handler, resulting in a disproportionately large anxiety response, similar to a panic attack.
Environmental and health factors also affect baseline stress levels. Lack of a routine along with inadequate movement space, socialization, and mental stimulation increase canine stress levels, even when they’re not alone. Existing health conditions also increase stress levels, particularly in cases of chronic pain or inadequate nutrition.
It’s common for pet parents to inadvertently encourage anxious behavior in association with an impending departure. An owner who feels guilty about leaving is an easy mark for a dog who is interested in getting extra attention or treats. Dogs are also empathetic and pick up on cues of anxiety their owners show. Over time, a dog can become conditioned to feeling anxious about their owner’s departure if the owner consistently reacts in an anxious or disproportionate manner.
Feelings of anxiety ultimately result from a culmination of the above factors, but development of the behavior disorder is often triggered by a single event. Common initial triggers for separation anxiety include:
Once separation anxiety is established, the behaviors are triggered by signs that the owner is about to leave. These signs include:
Dogs with separation anxiety experience a high level of emotional distress, which often results in dramatic behavioral symptoms.
Examples of these symptoms include
Ruling out boredom is one of the first steps for making a diagnosis of separation anxiety. Dogs with low mental stimulation often display similar behaviors as dogs with separation anxiety, including destructive behaviors and escape attempts.
Video evidence of the behaviors are often helpful in making a diagnosis. Although there is no specific test for separation anxiety, routine diagnostics like physical examination, blood work, and x-rays help rule out any underlying conditions contributing to the dog’s behavior. Careful consideration of whether the dog’s needs are being met is also important to rule out environmental causes of stress.
Managing separation anxiety often requires a combination of behavior modification training, desensitization, and medication. Identifying the best combination for the individual pet requires trial and error and a significant amount of time. During this time period, avoiding leaving the dog alone is helpful in preventing the behavior from regressing to a previous point, or even worsening.
The goal of behavioral modification is to reduce the dog’s attachment to the owner while improving their ability to relax when alone.
Methods to discourage the dog’s clingy behavior include:
Encouraging relaxation when alone is often difficult. Strategies that help make an environment more relaxing include:
Once the dog’s environment is more relaxing and they are becoming more independent, the desensitization process can begin. Many dogs have a specific trigger that alerts them when their owner is about to leave. Identifying that trigger, and repeating it randomly throughout the day without leaving helps reduce the dog’s response. Over time, this desensitization progresses, challenging the dog’s response more over time. Eventually, the dog realizes these actions are not always associated with the owner leaving. Desensitization is often most successful when paired with counter-conditioning. In this process, each triggering action is paired with a treat or toy, associating the action with a positive event. Well executed behavior modification and desensitization plans are often effective in increasing the amount of time a dog can be left alone before symptoms of separation anxiety start to recur.
It is important to never punish dogs for behaviors associated with separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is not the result of a lack of training, and negative reinforcement is a largely ineffective training approach. Affected dogs have no control over their behavior, so they do not understand the consequences of their actions. Additionally, reprimanding them often increases their stress and anxiety, having an opposite effect to what was intended.
Anxiety is a lifelong condition. Identifying the best management strategies for the individual dog takes a significant amount of time and trial and error. Additionally, even successful management strategies do not have an immediate effect on the dog’s behavior. Therapeutic trials typically take weeks before drawing any conclusions. Consistent application of these strategies over time is necessary to produce small changes in the behavioral response. Complete resolution is not expected.
The root cause of anxiety disorders is multifaceted and not well understood, and some dogs might develop anxiety under even the best of circumstances. In general, ensuring that all of a dog’s mental, physical, health, environmental, and emotional needs are met helps minimize the occurrence of anxiety symptoms in dogs. In addition, if departure rituals are avoided and mild symptoms of anxiety are not inadvertently reinforced by the owner’s response to them, anxious behaviors may never develop into separation anxiety significant enough to impact a dog’s quality of life.
Separation anxiety is common in dogs. Studies show between 13-38% of dogs experience some level of separation anxiety.